Category Archives: Exploring New York City

Morgan’s Library

Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

Concern over inequality and the power of huge corporations is nothing new.  At the end of the nineteenth century the richest 1% of the American population owned 51% of the nation’s wealth.

One of the most powerful of the “robber barons” (or “captains of industry”, depending on your viewpoint) was J Pierpont Morgan (1837-1914) who amassed great wealth by consolidating already large enterprises into conglomerates – General Electric, International Harvester and the United States Steel Corporation.

In the financial emergency now known as the Panic of 1907 the United States government had, for lack of a central bank, to rely on Morgan to pull together enough support from his fellow financiers to keep the economy afloat.

When he wasn’t making money, J P Morgan took to spending it on great art, amassing a spectacular collection of books, manuscripts, paintings and objets d’art which his son, J Pierpont Morgan Jnr (known as Jack, 1867-1943), endowed as a public institution.

Ever since my first visit to New York in 1981 I’ve been familiar with the Frick Collection, the Fifth Avenue villa that houses the treasures amassed by Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), but I only recently found the Morgan collection thanks to a Time Out 101-things-to-do-in-New-York feature.

The Morgan Library & Museum occupies the site of J P Morgan’s small colony of brownstone houses off Madison Avenue in Manhattan.  He had bought a townhouse at 219 Madison Avenue at 36th Street as a family home in 1882, and commissioned from the architect Charles F McKim (1847-1909) a purpose-built library extension next door, completed in 1906.  (J P Morgan also bought, in 1903 and 1904 respectively, the two adjacent brownstones, one to demolish for a garden, the other as a residence for his son Jack.)

The 1906 library building is a Palladian design in Tennessee marble, linked to the 1928 annex which Jack Morgan built on the site of his father’s townhouse and to the surviving mid-nineteenth century brownstone by the Expansion of 2006 – three glass pavilions and an atrium by Renzo Piano, the architect of London’s Shard.

The core of the museum is the McKim building – three main rooms, one a triple-decker library, linked by a rotunda.  It was here that Pierpont Morgan corralled his banking colleagues in 1907, literally locking them in until they agreed on a rescue package to safeguard the financial system.

J P Morgan’s policy of acquiring great art with a significant story attached was continued after his death by his librarian, Belle da Costa Greene (1883-1950), a light-skinned woman of colour who was enormously influential in the New York art world.

This is why the collection embraces illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and Near Eastern cylinder seals, alongside the drafts of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’.

Within a few paces I examined the manuscript of a symphony by the teenage Mozart corrected by his father, Dr Johnson’s handwriting, a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma and a Gutenberg Bible.  Hard-headed business dealings paid for this fabulous treasure house of art and human talent, accessible to the public simply by walking in from the street.

Audubon Ballroom

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

A couple of years ago I revisited one of my earliest New York City experiences – taking the M4 bus from midtown Madison Avenue all the way to The Cloisters.

As the bus turned off Broadway into 165th Street I noticed on the street corner an elaborate building which I judged to have a cast-iron façade.

When I went back later, closer inspection showed that most of the elaborate external decoration is brightly coloured, crisply modelled faience.

The entrance is dominated by an elaborate relief of the prow of a ship, apparently representing Jason and the Argonauts, with an oversized figurehead depicting the god Neptune, and along the entire façade are the heads of brown foxes.

This was the Audubon Theater and Ballroom, built in 1912 by the greatest American theatre-architect of his day, Thomas W Lamb (1871–1942), for the film distributor William Fox (1879-1952), who later gave his name to the 20th Century Fox film studio.

The connection with Fox explains the foxes, but I’ve no idea why Neptune dominates the entrance nor, indeed, whether the building is named after the ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851).

The splendid auditorium seated 2,500 and was used for both film and vaudeville.  The basement was used as a synagogue, Emez Wozedek, from 1939 to 1983, and the second-floor ballroom became a venue for trade union and other political meetings as well as dances and dinners.

It was in the ballroom on February 21st 1965 that the human rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated at the age of 39:

After a foreclosure in 1967 the ballroom was used as a Hispanic cinema, the San Juan Theater, until 1980.

The building then became derelict and the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center took it over and proceeded to clear the site to make way for a purpose-designed medical research centre.

The Columbia project created controversy between advocates of regeneration in an area of deprivation and guardians of political and cultural heritage:  [ and]

It seems that the Audubon Theater and Ballroom is threaded into so much twentieth-century New York cultural and political history.  The erotic filmmaker Radley Metzger (1929-2017) had a strong affection for the Audobon Theater, and named his distribution company after it:

Political pressure from the Washington Heights community, and particularly from the family of Malcolm X, led by his widow, Dr Betty Shabazz, eventually ensured that half the ballroom and much of the façade were retained:

It’s an awkward compromise, that speaks of cultural conflicts that go back to the time of the civil rights campaigns that Malcolm X fought for.

His third-eldest daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, remarked when her father’s memorial was opened in the building, “It’s hard for people to come back to a place where he was assassinated…But we’ve taken a tragic place and turned it into something beautiful.” [].

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.


Liberty enlightening the World

Statue of Liberty, New York City

Statue of Liberty, New York City

Every citizen of the USA, unless they are a Native American, is by definition the descendant of immigrants.

Something approaching 40% of the current population of the United States can claim ancestry from immigrants who entered through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, arriving under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty.

‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ is the full title of the great copper colossus, perhaps the most famous of all the visual symbols of the city and the nation, designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904).

The statue was financed by the voluntary subscription of the French people at a cost of $250,000 “to commemorate the alliance of the two nations in achieving the independence of the United States of America”.

Though the American people were happy to accept the gift, they proved reluctant to subscribe to the cost of the pedestal until Joseph Pultizer, in the editorial columns of the New York World, galvanised public energy into sufficient fund-raising:

It would be an irrevocable disgrace to New York City and the American Republic to have France send us this splendid gift without our having provided even so much as a landing place for it.

It is ironic that even the Statue of Liberty had problems securing a landing here.

The famous figure of a robed woman, stepping forward bearing a flaming torch in her right hand, is formed of copper sheets 3/32 of an inch thick.  The suggestion to use this material, shaped by repoussé hammering, came from the architect Eugène Viollet le Duc, and the problem of supporting it was resolved by the engineer Gustave Eiffel who designed the framework and armature on which the copper sheets are mounted with sufficient flexibility to absorb changes in temperature and the effects of wind.

Fabrication initially took place in Paris, where it gradually dominated the streets surrounding Bartholdi’s studio, after which it was dismantled and shipped across in 214 large crates.

The location in New York Harbour, formerly known as Bedloe’s Island, was chosen by Bartholdi.  The structure stands on the foundation of the former Fort Wood, in the shape of an eleven-pointed star:  the stone pedestal is itself 89 feet high, and the torch of the statue rises to 151 feet above ground-level.

The statue’s size, though it looks insignificant across the distance of the Harbour, is prodigious – the eyes are each two feet wide, and the right arm and torch, which were displayed as a separate unit at the Centennial exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876, are 42 feet high.

This magnificently flamboyant project came to final fruition in 1886, when the completed structure was dedicated by President Cleveland.

Its visual impact was immediately enhanced in the public consciousness by Emma Lazarus’ famous poem written in 1883:

…From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The word ‘iconic’ is heavily overused, yet ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ is an icon, to everyone from the protesters in Tiananmen Square to Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, in the 1997 film Titanic, as it might be to the property developer and TV show presenter, descended from German and Scottish immigrants, who became the 45th President.

Which is why it’s both distressing and heartening that a protester against Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban was photographed carrying a placard with the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses…”

New York’s 9/11 Museum

National September 11 Museum, New York City:  Ladder Company 3 apparatus

National September 11 Museum, New York City: Ladder Company 3 apparatus

New York’s National September 11 Memorial remembers the people who died in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, as well as the victims of the other violent acts in Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11th and the 1993 bomb-attack on the basement of the Center’s North Tower.

Nearby stands the National September 11 Museum, dedicated on May 15th 2014, designed by the New York architectural practice Davis Brody Bond specifically to evoke memories without causing additional distress to survivors and the families of victims.  The entrance pavilion is by the Norwegian practice Snøhetta.

The below-ground 110,000 square-foot space incorporates surviving archaeology of the site, including footings of the towers, part of the slurry wall that holds back the Hudson River, and the transplanted Survivors’ Staircase, thirty-eight steps that formed part of the link from 5 World Trade Center to Vesey Street.

Major artefacts displayed include girder-work from the towers, part of the broadcasting antenna from the top of the North Tower, a badly damaged fire truck and other emergency vehicles.  There are objects, clothing, documents and photographs associated with those who died and those who survived, and tributes such as the Dream Bike, a motor-cycle restored by New York Fire Department firefighters on behalf of their lost colleague Gerard Baptiste.

Portraits of the 2,983 victims of the 1993 and 2001 bombings and commemorations from all over the world are displayed along with a rotating display of artefacts and recovered property associated with particular individual victims and survivors, many of them gifted by families, friends and colleagues, together with still photographs and audio- and video-material from before, during and after the attacks.

The layout is skilfully arranged to lead the visitor gently through a sequence of spaces that interpret sights, sounds and memories of the World Trade Center, the events of September 11th 2001, the rescue and recovery operations and the continuing rebuilding on the site.

Material that might be disturbing, such as a display about those who fell from the towers before they collapsed, is subtly flagged so that it can be avoided.  Friendly, unobtrusive docents are on hand to talk about the exhibits and the events.

This is not a place to rush through.  I spent three and a half hours there and didn’t see everything.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

New York’s 9/11 Memorial

If the task of replacing the landmark “twin towers” was a huge challenge to designers, the responsibility of commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attacks on the original site needed sensitivity and practical genius.

In comparison, the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania was sited literally in an open field.  The Pentagon Memorial in Washington is a public open space in front of the building, the only part of the Pentagon complex where photography is permitted.

In crowded Manhattan, however, there was a strong feeling – particularly from the loved ones of the victims, many of whose remains were never recovered from the site,– that nothing should be built where the towers stood.

Accordingly the National September 11 Memorial consists of the footprints of the original towers, rendered as twin pools, each one acre in area, lined with walls of granite over which flow waterfalls.

The designer, Michael Arad of the New York practice Handel Architects, entitled his concept “Reflecting Absence”, which is exactly what it does.

The street-level parapets have bronze panels inscribed the names of the victims of 9/11, including those who died at the Pentagon and aboard United Airlines Flight 93 and those who died in the 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center, grouped according to the location of their deaths.

The words “and her unborn child” are added to the names of the ten pregnant victims.

The trees surrounding the pools are long-lived deciduous swamp white oaks, with the exception of the “Survivor Tree”, a callory pear which survived the bombing and was nurtured by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in the Bronx and returned to the site.  Six other survivor trees, three callory pears and three little-leaf lindens, are replanted near to City Hall and the Manhattan approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The empty spaces, the soothing sound of falling water and the presence of the inscribed names call forth thoughts and feelings about the place and what happened there that resonate for victims’ loved ones, survivors and visitors who, if they are old enough, remember exactly where they were on September 11th 2001.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Freedom Tower

One World Trade Center, originally the Freedom Tower, New York City

One World Trade Center, originally the Freedom Tower, New York City

Replacing the towers of the World Trade Center that were destroyed on September 11th 2001 was a hugely important and highly controversial part of the United States’ recovery from the attacks.

The landmark structure, One World Trade Center, otherwise known by its original name, the Freedom Tower, was designed by the master planner, Daniel Libeskind.   His plan for the whole site went through an extended series of revisions by the developer’s architect, David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Libsekind’s original concept had an off-centre spire, suggesting the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty, and an open steel lattice at the top:  he originated the idea that the height should be the symbolic 1,776 feet, a reference to the date of the American Declaration of Independence.

David Childs’ final design has a 200-foot-square footprint and rests on a 185-foot-high windowless base, intended to resist ground-level attacks.  At the twentieth floor the rectangular plan breaks into four chamfers, so that the floor-plan becomes octagonal and then continues to a square diagonally opposed at 45° to the base, so that the sides of the building are in the form of isosceles triangles.

The initial intention to enclose the mast with a radome was cancelled to save costs.

Though the cornerstone was laid in 2004, practical construction began only in 2007.

The tower is 1,776ft high, over 400ft higher than the World Trade Center towers, and topped by a broadcasting antenna that takes its total height over 1,792ft.  It is formally designated as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, but the CN Tower in Toronto (1,815ft) has the accolade of being the world’s tallest free-standing structure.

The top floor of the Freedom Tower, two storeys above the observation deck, is 1,368 feet high, exactly equal to the roof height of the original World Trade Center towers 1 and 2.  There are actually ninety-four floors, though the top floor is numbered 104.

It was practically completed with the installation of the spire on May 10th 2013 and formally opened on November 3rd 2014.

The views from the top of the Freedom Tower are spectacular – out into New York Harbour, up the narrow island of Manhattan, across to Brooklyn to the east and to the flat expanse of New Jersey to the west.

There is no access to the outside at the top of the Freedom Tower, though, so photographing the view is a frustrating exercise in dodging reflections.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Free time in New York: The High Line

New York City:  The High Line at Gansevoort Street

New York City: The High Line at Gansevoort Street

One of the most relaxing ways of wandering in a green setting in Lower Manhattan is the High Line, an elevated walkway created from a redundant railway viaduct running the length of the Meatpacking District and almost into Greenwich Village.

When the first railways were laid into Manhattan, the built-up area of the street grid extended hardly as far as 23rd Street.  The Hudson River Railroad, built 1846-51, brought its tracks across the Harlem River at the Spuyten Dyvel Bridge and all the way down Tenth Avenue at grade level, with obvious dangers and inconveniences to street traffic.

In 1871, most passenger services were diverted by the Spuyten Duyvil & Port Morris Railroad, originally built in 1842, along Park Avenue to what became the Grand Central Terminal.

Because the Hudson River Railroad west-side line remained useful for bringing freight into lower Manhattan, it was grade-separated between 1929 and 1934 as part of the West Side Improvement Project.  The resulting elevated railway was aligned along the blocks on either side of 10th Avenue, sometimes running through buildings such as the Bell Telephone Laboratories Building at 463 West Street and the Nabisco building between 15th and 16th Streets, now Chelsea Market.

The line became redundant from the 1960s, and the last train, apparently delivering a load of frozen turkeys, ran in 1980.

The track-bed became derelict and overgrown, though the steelwork remained entirely sound, and in the 1990s local residents began to campaign for its retention as an unlikely amenity:

Supported by such luminaries as the fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, and sponsored by a range of high-end companies, the viaduct was reopened as the High Line [], a greenway modelled on the Parisian Promenade plantée René-Dumont (1993), in phases between 2009 and 2014.

It runs from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street, south of Little West 12th Street and adjacent to the new Whitney Museum of American Art (Renzo Piano 2015), encompassing wild planting, wooded groves and a lawn, with a range of amenities such as seating, artworks and catering facilities.  There is level access at 34th Street, and elsewhere there are five wheelchair-accessible entrances with elevators and a further five staircases at intervals.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Free time in New York: Brooklyn Bridge

New York City:  Brooklyn Bridge

New York City: Brooklyn Bridge

The pedestrian and cycle path across Brooklyn Bridge is one of the great cost-free experiences of New York City.

Some people think the Brooklyn Bridge is the most beautiful bridge in the world.  It has a unique place in the development of the most elegant of all bridge designs – the suspension bridge.  Its stone piers with their Gothic arches, the fanning suspension cables and its unparalleled setting make it unmistakable.

The bridge was designed by John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869), whose adoption of 3,000-ton pneumatic caissons to dig through the river silt to the bedrock below made possible the 276-foot Gothic towers that carry the span.  Roebling’s expertise, which included building the first suspension bridge across the gorge below Niagara Falls (1855), came from his ownership of a wire-manufacturing company.

Surveying began in 1867, but before construction began Roebling was injured in a ferry accident and shortly afterwards died of tetanus.

The project passed to his son, Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), who also lost his health to the Brooklyn Bridge.  He fell victim to the then unknown condition we now call decompression sickness, and was so debilitated that he had to supervise the project remotely, using his wife Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903) as his amanuensis and messenger.  She became so knowledgeable and capable about bridge engineering that many thought she was the actual designer.

Its 1,595-foot central span was at the time the longest in the world, half as long again as the previous record-holder, J A Roebling’s Cincinnati-Covington Bridge (1856-67)  [].  The clearance-height above the river, 135 feet, became the international standard for bridging waterways that carry sea-going vessels.  This was the first suspension bridge to use galvanised steel cables, and the first project to use dynamite in bridge construction.  Its cost was $15,100,000 – more than twice the initial budget.

It opened on May 24th 1883 with a procession led by Emily Warren Roebling, accompanied by President Chester Arthur and the Governor of New York State, Grover Cleveland (later 22nd and 24th President) and the Mayors of New York and Brooklyn.  Washington Roebling remained at home in Brooklyn Heights where he hosted a celebratory dinner later in the day.

The Brooklyn Bridge has hidden depths.  At least one of the vaults within the Brooklyn approach, originally planned as a shopping arcade, was leased to a wine-merchant and has been periodically rediscovered:  In 2006 a disused nuclear bunker was discovered in the Manhattan foundations, containing “more than 350,000 items, including half-century-old water drums, food canisters, and medical supplies”:

There is a comprehensive series of photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge at

Footage dating from 1899 shows a cab-ride in an elevated railway train, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at the time when it was shared between pedestrians, road vehicles, trains and streetcars:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Free time in New York: Staten Island Ferry

New York City:  Staten Island Ferry

New York City: Staten Island Ferry

The classic way of seeing New York Harbour as it should be seen, by water, is the Staten Island Ferry, which runs twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, except overnight on public holidays, and is entirely free of charge:

The first steam-powered ferry service between Manhattan and Staten Island was operated by the Nautilus (1817).

The ferry company was purchased in 1838 by future railroad entrepreneur “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), and at the start of the Civil War it passed to the Commodore’s brother, Jacob H Vanderbilt, a leading figure in the Staten Island Railway company.  Later still it was taken over by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Staten Island, as part of the Borough of Richmond, was absorbed into the City of New York in 1898 and the ferry service was taken over by the New York Docks and Ferries Department in 1905.

It remains the responsibility of what is now the New York Department of Transportation.

Initially, the municipalised Staten Island Ferry charged the same 5-cent fare as the New York Subway, and for much of the twentieth century the ferry-fare remained the same while subway fares increased.  Between 1972 and 1990 the fare increased in stages to 50 cents, still a great bargain.

Fare-collection was abolished in 1997, since when the Staten Island Ferry has been one of the best free attractions in New York.

Most tourists simply sail out to Staten Island and come straight back, but you have to disembark and re-board, so it’s worth having a drink or a meal with a distant view of Manhattan at the River Dock Café, Staten Island Ferry Terminal:  

I had traditional fish and chips, a well-intentioned approximation to the British national dish, with three fillets of Atlantic cod and British chips.  (What the Americans usually call “chips” in England would be crisps;  what the Americans call “fries” are British chips, but not at the River Dock Café.)

The beer’s good too – such as Sam Adams Rebel IPA (ABV 6.5%):

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Museum Mile – the Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949) was a younger son of the mining magnate Meyer Guggenheim (1828-1905) and the founder of the Yukon Gold Company. He collected modern art and displayed his paintings at his apartment at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, until the collection became so large that it grew into the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which opened in 1939.

In 1943 he commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s only New York building, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum [], which eventually opened in 1959 – after the deaths of both the founder and the architect – at 1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street in the midst of the city’s Museum Mile.

There it sits, looking as if it’s landed from outer space, a deliberate challenge to the rectilinear patterns of the streets and the buildings around it.

Frank Lloyd Wright would rather have built it elsewhere – not in New York City, which he disliked – and chose the Fifth Avenue site because of its proximity to Central Park.

The spiral shape reflects a nautilus shell, and the divisions of the display areas echo the membranes of citrus fruit.

Like most Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, it looks remarkable yet has turned out to be remarkably difficult to maintain, and it’s undergone a series of repairs and renovations.

Though its aesthetic appeal is a matter of taste, there is no denying the impact of this sensuous, swirling structure.

Its practicality can best be appreciated by taking the ovoid lift to the top and following the gently graded spiral ramp, which inevitably dictates the order of viewing exhibits, round and round the central space.

The peculiarities of its display-space have irritated some artists and, indeed, some curators. It’s impossible to hang a flat painting on a concave wall, and difficult to place a rectilinear canvas on a sloping floor.

Others regard it as an exceptional context for showing artworks. Indeed, one of its most memorable exhibitions, Frank Gehry’s The Art of the Motorcycle (1998), was built around an assemblage of 114 historic motor-bikes.

The Guggenheim’s eccentricities do not suit all types of art by any means, but the building is a consummate work of art in its own right.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.